Considering History: A Statue in Prague, Four Presidents, and the Meaning of American Democracy

The histories of the U.S. and Czechia are linked by multiple presidents of both countries.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Woodrow Wilson, Václav Havel, and George Washington (Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections; Library of Congress; Kingkongphoto & via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, Wikimedia Commons; Gilbert Stuart, c. 1795, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

I had the great good fortune to spend most of my recent honeymoon in the beautiful city of Prague, capital of Czechia (also known as the Czech Republic, and formerly half of Czechoslovakia, of which Prague was also the capital). It was my first visit to Prague, and on just about every cobblestoned street and around most every curve of the Vltava River I found something both unexpected and lovely. But without question the most unexpected discovery was a towering statue located in a park outside of the city’s 150-year-old main train station, Praha hlavní nádraží: a monument to none other than American President Woodrow Wilson.

Image courtesy of Ben Railton

That statue, which was originally erected in 1928, torn down by the Nazis during their occupation of the city, and restored in 2011, reflects histories linked to not just Wilson but also multiple presidents of both the United States and Czechia. Those connections reveal a great deal about Czech history, but they also show the frustrating yet inspiring meaning of American democratic ideals around the world.

The first president who connects these histories also happens to be the first president of Czechoslovakia, the professor and radical activist Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937). When Masaryk was born in the Southern Czech region of Moravia, it was part of the Austrian Empire; by the time he became a Professor of Philosophy at Prague’s historic Charles-Ferdinand University and then a government deputy, the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Masaryk had long advocated for Czech and Slovak independence, and the outbreak of the Great War (World War I) allowed him to travel Europe gaining support for that cause, not only politically but also militarily through his founding of the Czechoslovak Legion who fought against the empire and its allies.

It was the 1918 culmination of those advocacy efforts that brought Masaryk into contact and then friendship with Woodrow Wilson. Masaryk had been married to an American citizen, Charlotte Garrigue, since 1878 and so had visited the United States on a few occasions prior to 1918. But those had been more personal or academic visits, while in 1918 Masaryk arrived as a celebrated wartime activist and freedom fighter. More than 150,000 cheered him on at a welcome parade in Chicago on May 5, and in early October the city hosted President Wilson and countless other significant figures for a formal conference with Masaryk on the question of Czechoslovak independence.

Ten days after that conference, Masaryk gave President Wilson a document he called the “Washington Declaration.” Written by Masaryk with the help of a number of American allies, including the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, this document thoroughly laid out the case for an independent Czechoslovakia. It was closely modeled on the American Declaration of Independence, a choice that certainly would have impressed the academic historian in Woodrow Wilson. The document convinced Wilson, who threw his full support behind the cause, helping insure that with the war’s conclusion and the concurrent dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a new nation of Czechoslovakia would be created, with Masaryk as its first president, elected by the National Assembly in November 1918 while Masaryk was still in the U.S.

Less than a year after Masaryk took office, his government paid tribute to Wilson, renaming the city’s central train station after him in 1919 (it was later renamed Prague Main Railway Station). And nine years later, on July 4th, 1928, the 11-foot-tall statue of Wilson, designed by the Czech immigrant sculptor Albin Polasek, was erected outside that train station. At its base reads Wilson’s famous quote, “The world must be made safe for democracy, in both English and Czech.”

Like President Wilson’s controversial plan for the League of Nations and every other aspect of the post-World War I period in Europe, this American influence on the creation and governance of new European nations was without question more complex than that quote suggests. But Masaryk was far from a puppet for Wilson or the U.S., and indeed Masaryk’s vision for an independent Czechoslovakia was based on his lifelong admiration for another American President: George Washington. On February 22nd, 1932, President Masaryk delivered a radio address to commemorate George Washington’s 200th birthday, telling his American audience,

When we severed the bonds binding us to the old Habsburg monarchy, I was aware that our decision must not be less motivated than the resolution taken by the founder of American liberty, and having recovered our liberty, we again follow the example of Washington in that we must no longer feel the old antagonism and anger, which originated in the suppression of our liberty. It is one of the great experiences of my life that I was allowed to claim the principles of our revolutionary liberation in the Independence Hall, the place where Washington and his friends used to meet…My hearty wishes to the American people.

To honor George Washington, a Prague street directly adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson statue was renamed Washingtonova Street.

Photo courtesy of Ben Railton

And across the Atlantic in Washington, D.C., two monuments commemorate Czechoslovak presidents as well. Masaryk himself is captured in a memorial statue that was originally housed in the Prague National Gallery but was rededicated in Washington in September 2002. Present at that rededication was the fourth president to whom these histories connect: Václav Havel, the revolutionary leader who became the first president of a newly independent Czechoslovakia after his Velvet Revolution led to independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. In November 2014, a bust of Havel was placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, another powerfully symbolic link between the two nations.

Masaryk and Havel are two of the many world leaders who have been influenced in their quest for independence and democracy by American ideals, and have in turn helped shape the continued evolution of those ideals here in the U.S. Just as we have far too often failed to live up to those ideals at home, so too have our actions around the world frequently come up short. Yet American democracy remains a powerful and inspiring idea, and one for which we should fight just as passionately as did Czechoslovakia’s leaders for their national future.

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